Thursday, April 29, 2010

Book Snapshots: "The Financial Lives of the Poets" by Jess Walter.

Author Jess Walter writes very, very well.  In his novel The Financial Lives of the Poets, Walter tells a lively story about the economic wipe-out of Matthew Prior and his family.  Set during the recent financial crisis, Matt is in desperate straits when a series of bad individual choices collide with a worse economy. At the end of his rope financially and emotionally, Matt heads to a 7-11 late one night to buy milk and stumbles into an opportunity to use the last of his cash to get into the business of selling marijuana. An opportunity he grabs.

Deciding to deal his way out of economic misery may prove to be yet another dubious decision by Matt.  But what is wonderful about Jess Walter's writing is that he does not make his characters look foolish, even when events seem absurd. Instead, this heartfelt story is funny, knowing and truthful.

The protagonist, Matt Prior, is a financial reporter.  Matt left his newspaper to start a web site combining poetry and economic advice.  Not surprisingly, that project didn't pan out.  He returned to the paper but was subsequently laid-off as the newspaper itself was failing economically.

Unemployed and with his wife only able to find part-time work, income into the Prior household is strained while the demands for cash rage on:  Mortgage payment, car payment, credit card payments, private school tuition for the Prior's two children, and more.  Matt's father, who has dementia, and is living with Matt and his family.  And thus the reader meets Matt Prior, a stressed-out, desperate guy in his 40s, financially at the edge of the abyss - a situation he is hiding from his wife - emotionally fried, and ready to deal.   

In the hands of a different author, this story of a family's financial tsunami could be either hackneyed or unbearable.  But Jess Walter works amazing magic, crafting this book in a wonderful style that I can only describe as bright and clear.  The Financial Lives of the Poets is about a desperate situation, but it is a pleasure to read.  

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rainy Saturday

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Washington Post Review of Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil".

A few weeks ago I mentioned that a new book was forthcoming by Yann Martel, author of the excellent book Life of Pi.  The new book, Beatrice and Virgil, was reviewed recently by Ron Charles at the Washington Post.  According to Mr. Charles, "Beatrice and Virgil is so dull, so misguided, so pretentious that only the prospect of those millions of "Pi" fans could secure the interest of major publishers and a multimillion-dollar advance."

I sense that he doesn't care for the book.  Read the rest of the review here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

On Right-Wing Political Screeds and Cowboy Philosophy.

Breakfast is not the time of day when one wants to see a full-page advert in the paper for a new "book" from an increasingly irrelevant political pundit.  This is just not how the day should start.  Yet it happened to me yesterday.  I can only hope the newspaper was handsomely paid for the space.    

As I lingered over coffee, considering the ad, and the author, and the politics involved, I recalled something I hadn't thought of in years, one of my dad's favorite sayings: "That man reminds me," dad would say, "of the south end of a horse going north."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Washington Post Reviews "The Man from Beijing".

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell has been on my to-read radar for a while.  After reading Maureen Corrigan's review of the book in the Washington Post, it has moved to the top of the list.  According to Corrigan:
It may not be flawless, but Henning Mankell's "The Man From Beijing" is a great mystery that belongs in the company of other knockout masterpieces of moral complexity and atmosphere like Dorothy Sayers's "The Nine Tailors," Robert Goddard's "Beyond Recall," Barbara Vine's "A Dark-Adapted Eye" and Mankell's own brilliant 2002 gloomfest, "One Step Behind." The new novel's ambitious plotting alone should be dissected and taught in MFA programs where, these days, the craft of storytelling seems to rank far below the poetics of the acknowledgements page in terms of literary value.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Martin Stannard's "Muriel Spark: The Biography."

In the April 5 issue of The New Yorker, Thomas Mallon reviews Martin Stannard's biography of writer Muriel Spark.  The book, Muriel Spark: The Biography, first appeared in England last July and received high marks from critics.  Spark is one of the most important British writers of the post-World War II period.  A poet, essayist, and novelist, she died in 2006 at the age of 88.  Muriel Spark wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and over 20 other novels. 

Spark's novel A Far Cry from Kensington, written in 1988, has been described as her most autobiographical.  It's an interesting book, with an unusual, almost old-fashioned, atmosphere.  If you've missed The New Yorker piece on the Spark biography, check out this review of Stannard's book from The Observer.  And try reading  A Far Cry from Kensington after you've become familiar with Spark's life; knowing those details make the book even more enjoyable.